On Assignment: concert photojournalism

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Tompi. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

I recently played the role of official photographer for a producer friend’s concert – it was a moderately large affair featuring a good number of famous local musicians. The nice thing about this event was that it was large enough to have professional acts, decent lighting and good organization, but not so large that I didn’t have access to everything – and I mean everything, including the stage itself during the performance*.

*One thing a good concert photographer should never do is interfere with the act; so even though the stage might be open to you, one should never get between the performers and the audience unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even then only for the shortest possible period of time. Oh, and remember that the shutter sound carries quite clearly through any microphones that have been placed near equipment.

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Through the legs. Nikon D700, 28/1.8G

Although I’m not normally a huge fan of the types of music being played, I have to say this was one of the more enjoyable events I’ve attended and shot; I guess I’d be the restless type of concertgoer who’s only happy with a camera in hand and backstage pass – not so much to meet the artists, but to shoot. Although it’s the first photojournalism assignment I’ve done in quite some time – and the first concert assignment in many years. (In 2005/6 I was the house photographer at one of the jazz clubs in Kuala Lumpur, but I eventually stopped because I wasn’t getting enough sleep after gigs and before work the next day.) This job made me realize just how much I missed photojournalism.

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Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

There were a number of photographers there from other local/ national media and international agencies; the locals were mostly using midrange APS-C bodies, kit lenses and off-brand flashes; you could tell the major agencies by their standard issue pro bodies and f2.8 zooms. Interestingly, the proliferation of lower end cameras amongst media/ newsmen – at least in Malaysia – has been getting increasingly common as these organizations seek to cut cots. I can understand the bodies passing the threshold of sufficiency and being capable of producing great results in the hands of any competent photographer, but the use of slow kit zooms just hamstrings the ability to create a picture that preserves the ambient light and feel of the scene without resorting to a flash.

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In the moment. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

From experience, I know that when wearing my photojournalism hat, the lighter you can go, the better. I was carrying my D700/ MB-D10, 28/1.8 G and 85/1.8 G for close distance coverage; the OM-D and 100-300 rode shotgun for more reach. (I was also carrying the 12/2 and 45/1.8 as backup in case the D700 developed a problem, plus an SB900 for balanced fill which I didn’t land up using. My motto is go light, but not so light that you have no insurance when it comes to equipment failure.) Many of you will know that the new Nikon 28/1.8 G has proven itself to be a very capable lens even on the demanding sensor of the D800E; I’m pleased to report that both the 28 and 85 f1.8 G lenses performed flawlessly on the D700, both in terms of focusing accuracy and optical performance. The 85/1.8 G does exhibit some moderate flare with strongly backlit point sources (the hood makes almost no difference here), but I personally don’t mind it as I feel that it adds to that atmosphere and pictorial value of the image somewhat.

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Keyboards. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

The big surprise of the night was the OM-D and 100-300 combination, however. I didn’t use AF-C; most of the time careful timing, a short burst and the extended depth of field for a given FOV due to the smaller sensor was enough. It’s rather counterintuitive for DSLR shooters, but I find that with the OM-D, just depressing the shutter all the way down and trusting the camera’s AF system yields a considerably higher hit rate than using AF-C, or worse, AF-Tracking. The 100-300 delivered excellent optical performance, even out to the 300mm limit; due to the lighting conditions I was working wide open the whole time. The lens did hunt somewhat above 200mm, but so long as I was in the ballpark, focusing was reasonably fast.

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Blue note. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

So far, no surprises – I’d shot with the 100-300 in good light conditions, and been pleased with the results. The OM-D, on the other hand, seems to excel under tricky mixed-light or strong-color situations; to get a sufficiently high shutter speed – I was in the 1/45-1/60s region most of the time, at 300-400mm equivalent – I was solidly in the ISO 3200 to ISO 6400 band. In all honesty, I don’t feel the files were noticeably more noisy than the D700 for a given ISO; the only place where the smaller sensor made itself known was in dynamic range – the D700 had probably two stops extra on the OM-D. I can definitely see where the 75/1.8 would be useful though – 100mm was a bit long at times, and the extra 2 1/3 stops (probably more in transmission) would have pushed image quality even higher still.

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Strumming out. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

All in all, a very satisfying nights’ work. Come work delivery time, the litmus test is always the client; I’m happy to say that this one passed with flying colors. “I can’t stop looking at the pictures, they’re amazing!” was the text message I got a few days after delivery. So, anybody else need a concert photographer? MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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One – Ramli Sarip. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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This is what rockers do. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The loud pedal. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Thank you to my band. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The hair. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Backstage with the fans. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G


  1. I hate to revive an old thread, but it seems to have hit a nerve for me. But first, great images, as usual, Ming (however the Flickr links lead to a 404 error). I have used a D300 (with an 85/1.8 and 70-200/2.8) for a number of years to shoot a charity benefit concert, but would like to improve the IQ of the images as they seem more noisy than I would like (although Lightroom keeps getting better at noise reduction). I also shoot with m4/3rd’s (E-PL5) with most of the faster primes, including the 25, 45 and 75, but have not used this gear for any concert or stage work. I now have the option of buying an almost new D700 (shutter count of 500) for $800-1,000 USD. The D700 needs to introduction, and I thought that going FF might help solve some of my noise problem (and being a twin to the D300 makes it easy to use). But, for that same amount of money, I realized that I have the option to acquire some of the Oly bodies that offer some improvements over the E-PL5 (mainly improved IBIS). I realize that neither are bad choices, but as funds are limited, I am a bit conflicted. I have good, fast glass in both systems, and like the size advantage of m4/3rd’s, but the D700 would also make quite an addition, especially at that price. I am mostly looking for improvements when shooting in low light/no flash situations like concerts and dance theater performances. Any wisdom would be greatly appreciated.


    • That’s odd, they work fine here – do the images themselves show in the article itself?

      If you can only have one, the D700 makes more sense – shared lenses, better AF tracking than M4/3, and definitely better high ISO than the D300 (though it’s pretty similar to the E-M1, actually).

      • Hi Ming,

        Thanks for the reply. The photos do appear in the post, but when right clicked, Flickr give a 404 page. Regarding the D700, it is no longer available, but a used E-M5 became available at an extremely good price in the whole affair (although for a little more money, I could consider the new E-M10). If it checks out OK, I’ll probably use it for a while, mostly to test out the 5-way IBIS with lenses like the 75. If I find it an overall improvement over the E-PL5, then I’ll consider an E-M1, or whatever is released when the time comes.

        Thanks again,


        P.S. Do you have any teaching modules specifically focusing on post processing in Lightroom? I know that you frequently mention your use of PS, but I use LIghtroom and would be interested in learning how your post processing vision and philosophy translates to it. I am not specifically interested in copying your technique, but rather learning how you see the final image and then use the tools to take you there.

        • I’ll have another look at the back end. Sorry about that.

          A LR video is in the works because I’ve been asked more times than I can remember, but to be honest, the answer is still the same: I still don’t like the output because of the limitations it has compared to PS. There is a reason why PS costs more…

          • No worries about the links. Looking forward to the LR video. A discussion of LR’s limitations might make for a good post.


  2. Jorge Balarin says:

    Hi MIng ! One question, do you thing that a 70-200mm VRll Nikon zoom would behave good in the condititions you faced in the rock concert, or f/2.8 would not bee enough ?
    And one more question, wich shutter speeds would you advice to such circumstances ? (rockers use to move their heads a lot).

    • It’d be enough – I was also using the Panasonic 100-300/4-5.6!

      Depends what you want to achieve, and how good you are with timing – 1/100-1/200 was enough for me.

  3. This is amazing Ming!! You’ve been so helpful to me today. I’m an enthusiast/amateur who’s recently started shooting local bands (at their request) in small, poorly lit clubs with dodgy stage lights (lots of very dim red lighting) and I’ve been finding that my pro zooms at f/2.8 just haven’t been cutting it. Though with the great low light capabilities of my D600 and the help of Lightroom, I’ve been able to produce some pretty great images (at least the bands I’ve shot have been happy with them). But I’ve had to shoot a lot of shots at ISO6400 and then crank up the exposure and noise reduction later. So today, I decided that I had to use my primes more for this type of shooting. A couple of my favourite shots have been with my 50mm 1.8g and my 85mm 1.4D and I figured I needed something wider to round out the stable and then maybe I could leave the big zooms at home. I’d read really conflicting reviews of the 28mm 1.8g and then I found your review and your gorgeous photos. I still wasn’t absolutely convinced this was the right lens for my needs …until I saw the link from your review to this entry where you shoot a gig using the 28 1.8g! Sold. These photos are fantastic! Now I just wish I could buy your talent. (Oh, and I also own an OM-D and have the Lumix 20mm and Olympus 45mm lenses — but I didn’t trust the micro 4/3 camera to produce the kind of quality I wanted — guess I was wrong on that one! Now I’m thinking about the Oly 75mm to add to the 4/3 stable. Ugghhh. Another lens). Thanks again for being so generous with your knowledge and experience!

    • Thanks, but you do realize a lot of the images in this set were shot with the OM-D and 100-300/4-5.6 zoom, right?

      • yes, of course! I’m referring specifically to the ones shot with the 28mm as identified under the photos above. I think they look great! And it was your OM-D shots which made me think I should give serious thought to using my own OM-D at some of the shows I’m shooting. Though I can tell you, I’d never get away with an f/4.5 aperture lens in the kind of murky light you find at some of the venues I’m talking about. Though, I wouldn’t need that kind of zoom in those places anyway — they’re small 300-500 capacity clubs where I can get right up front.

      • This is strange: I have almost exactly the same set-up as Tony, for doing the same jobs: shooting local bands in small venues 🙂
        Nikon D600 + 3 primes : 50 , 85 and 105 mm and/or OM-D + Oly 12mm, Pany 25 mm and Oly 45 mm

        Ming, again, these are stunning pictures! I had a look on Flickr at the exif data and was really surprised that some of the photo’s were shot at speeds 1/40 , 1/50, 1/60,… how do you manage to get your images as super sharp as they are? I tend to keep my shutter speed at or above 1/100, because otherwise, I’m afraid to get blurry pictures.

        Well done!


      • hahaha, neither do I !!

        Tomorrow my Nikkor 50 mm 1,8 I ordered last week at Amazon will be delivered to replace my 50 1.4 on your recommendation. I will let you know what my thoughts and first experiences are !

        Kind regards,


  4. Love the shots, the ambient lighting really does give a feel for the concert. And btw, Papa Rock RULES!!!

  5. Awesome images, as always, Ming!

    You’ve often stated that you don’t sleep very much, so I found this comment amusing.

    “In 2005/6 I was the house photographer at one of the jazz clubs in Kuala Lumpur, but I eventually stopped because I wasn’t getting enough sleep after gigs and before work the next day.”

    Let me guess: you had only 30 minutes between the gigs and work the next day? 🙂

  6. With the skill set that you have Ming, any camera/ lens seems to sing in your hand!!

  7. Jorge Balarin says:

    Hi Ming !
    Super photos as always. One question, shooting with your D700 do you prefer an 85mm f/1.8 over an 85mm f/1.4 ? and if that is the case, why ?
    In other blog I red that the 28 f/1.8 is a very good lens, but also a “disposable” one, that is not made to last more than 10 years. (and it is no so cheap) Is that true ? Greetings, Jorge.

    • Thanks. I prefer the 85/1.4 G on the D700 but I can’t afford to have both since the 85/1.4 G is not really useful on my D800E until f2.8, and I don’t use the D700 that much.

      We live in a disposable society, it’s an unfortunate fact of life.

  8. Great images. I would really love to see the ISO number also always with your photos… 🙂

  9. Nice job, Ming!
    Thanks for the insight into the OLympus 100-300. (The Nikon 28/1.8 as well.)
    Great shot of Ramly Sarip!

  10. Very nice, Ming! It was good to be able to get backstage passes, to give you the angle on most of your best shots.

    I very much enjoy concert shoots as well.

    I invited you to join me for both, but you were busy! 🙂


  1. […] you probably weren’t expecting from me. Though I’ve shot concerts on assignment before (here, for instance) I don’t tend to go very often as a fan, simply because I don’t have the […]

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